Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar arrested under sedition law

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, or Zunar as he is popularly known, was arrested on Saturday under the country’s Sedition Act for cartoons that allegedly insulted Prime Minister Najib Razak.

54-year-old Zunar would be held for a day to facilitate investigations, state news agency Bernama reported. Other than the Sedition Act, the cartoonist will also be probed under penal code for humiliating a person with intention, Bernama reported.

The arrest comes a day after some members of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) disrupted Zunar’s exhibition at the George Town Literary Festival and asked for the show to be canceled saying the cartoonist’s materials were seditious. They had also filed a police report.

“The Festival condemns this act of repression which is contrary to the spirit of free speech and expression, a central premise of the festival,” said Bernice Chauly, the literary festival’s director.

Before Saturday’s arrest, Zunar was already facing nine sedition charges. He has also been banned from leaving the country.

Prime Minister Najib, caught in the middle of a corruption scandal, has in recent months been using the colonial era Sedition Act and other draconian laws to arrest government critics, jail opposition leaders and stifle free speech by suspending media groups and blogs.

On Friday, an appeals court ruled that a section of the Sedition Act, which removes the requirement for the prosecution to prove the intention of a person charged with sedition, as unconstitutional.

Najib has faced criticism since the Wall Street Journal reported last year that around $700 million from state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) was diverted into the personal bank account of the prime minister.

Lawsuits filed by the U.S. Justice Department in July alleged that more than $3.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB, which was founded by Najib, and that some of those funds flowed into the accounts of “Malaysian Official 1”, whom U.S. and Malaysian officials have identified as Najib.

Najib has consistently denied wrongdoing and has consolidated power by sacking critics within his ruling party and cracking down on dissent.

Earlier this month, the head of a pro-democracy group that organized a protest rally against the prime minister was detained under a law meant to fight extremist threats, prompting the U.S. to say it was troubled by the arrest.

Reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Alexander Smith